In the studio
Black Tie White Noise was David Bowie’s return to pop music, after the raw and often experimental rock excesses of Tin Machine.
Bowie’s decision to reunite with producer Nile Rodgers for the first time since Let’s Dance perplexed Tin Machine guitarist Reeves Gabrels.
We’d put all this effort into trying to get rid of the stuff that followed Let’s Dance to change expectations and allow David to be an artist again. So I was irritated by the notion, but, for whatever reason, they decided to do it.
Starman, Paul Trynka
Equally perplexed was Rodgers, who found Bowie unwilling to maximise his commercial potential and make hit records.
The difference between Black Tie White Noise and Let’s Dance is night and day. When we did Black Tie White Noise, I felt my hands were tied to a large extent. It was like, ‘Hey, David, let’s try this.’ ‘No, I don’t wanna do this.’ ‘Hey, David, let’s try this, then.’ ‘No, I don’t want to do that either. This record is really about my wedding.’ I’d say, ‘But David, no one cares about your wedding. Let’s make a hit!’ ‘No, I don’t want to compete with Let’s Dance,’ would be the reply. ‘But David, we’ve got to compete with Let’s Dance. Everyone in the world will be asking why are we doing this, and the reason has got to be that we’re trying to top Let’s Dance. Hey, David, we’ve got to do Let’s Dance 2. It’s got to be like Star Wars. You don’t put Star Wars 2 out and it’s less. It’s gotta be better!’ I said this to him over and over again. I’d even call Iman, who was my friend, and I’d say, ‘Please tell him!’ and she’d say, ‘No, I like those other songs,m’ and I’m going, ‘Aaaaaaarggghhh!!! No, you don’t like those songs. Please, Iman – tell him.’ But she would say, ‘No, I agree with David.’
I was playing great commercial licks to Bowie, and he was rejecting them almost across the board. I didn’t know what to do. I felt that the world was against me. But let’s not be too one-sided. Maybe the licks I thought of stank – who knows? But all I knew was that they couldn’t all suck! I can’t even tell what sort of sound we were going for with Black Tie White Noise. Maybe I was drinking and drugging more than I should have done. Well, in fact, I know I was for Black Tie White Noise and Let’s Dance. I’m not sure if I lost the ability to do great records, so it’s not all David’s fault. When we finished that record, I knew it wasn’t cool. I knew it wasn’t nearly as cool as Let’s Dance. Don’t get me wrong, I think there’s really clever, interesting stuff on it. But the point is, it ain’t as good as Let’s Dance.
Strange Fascination, David Buckley
Bowie’s reluctance was, the singer later explained, a result of the backlash he anticipated if he were to release another global smash like Let’s Dance, when he had spent the last five years courting artistic credibility and a more selective audience.
I knew what people would think when they heard I was going back in to work with Nile. But I was thinking, ‘I hope this doesn’t turn into another Let’s Dance, and that probably drove me even harder. It is a very personal album.
NME, 27 March 1993
Recording began at Mountain Studios in Montreux, Switzerland, where Bowie had previously worked on Lodger and Never Let Me Down. The sessions continued at the Hit Factory and 38 Fresh studios in New York.